Oddland are a bit of an oddball (heh) in the gamut of progressive metal. Rising from the fertile grounds (for metal, at least) of Finland, they garnered quite a bit of hype with scene insiders. Their The Treachery of Senses (2012) was an interesting take on the darker, Tool influences that have been running strong through the scene for more than a decade now. However, with only one album and then a prolonged silence, fans and critics were unable to fully flesh out a firm idea of what the band was about; the album certainly sounded great, but what was the approach behind it all? Luckily, Origin marks 2016 as the year where the gaps in the Oddland tale are finally filled in. The album builds firmly on the strata of dark progressive but also gives us further insight into what Oddland want to bring to table, what they want to modulate and very within the scene.
At the basis of this album is a tension between two different sounds. On the one hand, chugged guitars, heavier drum/bass compositions and a melancholic approach speak with the aesthetic language set up by the cover art. On the other, the vocals and their unique dialect and modes of expression add a certain flair, a twist of the hand that introduces bright streaks of red and lightning white to the color scheme. Thus, unlike compatriots within this Tool/Opeth hybrid scene like Soen, Oddland contain much more than just another nod in these general directions. Like Soen on their second album, Oddland depart repeatedly from the set formula. By constantly shifting the balance from one end of the scale to the other, they don’t exactly delve deep into their influences rather than just use them as jumping points. Origin features both the heaviest and most mellow Oddland riffs.
Check out “Penumbra” for example. The main riff, with its chugging guitars and frenetic synths, is as straight as you can get in progressive metal. So too the guitar lead prominent throughout the bridge. But the chorus supplies us with something quite different: the vocals strain higher than we would expect and adopted a more epic mode of expression. Nor is it painted with the utmost melancholy we would expect on such a performance. The bridge that follows this chorus, and especially the second one, is again much brighter. Perhaps leaning more on Dream Theater, guitar/keyboard unisons operate in the background, alongside some cheesy string effects, to bring the track to a close. In general, the album sounds more pared back, rawer and more forthright with how it presents itself. This isn’t to say that it’s without an edge, as there’s a consistent momentum throughout the album. Instead, everything is there because it feels necessary. There aren’t any extraneous elements.
This more economic approach to progressive metal is quite refreshing within context. It allows Oddland to avoid the pitfalls that so often plague this sub-scene. Instead of endless iterations on loss, sadness and pain, we get tracks like “Skylines”, heavy enough but spliced with a soaring vocal mode that sets everything ablaze. By the way, listen around the two minute and twenty seconds mark on that track for one of the more interesting growls we’ve heard from a vocalist in this sub-genre. Moments like these are what sets Oddland apart and shows that they have ideas which break form and deviate from the norm. While their influences from genre classics like Pain of Salvation can still be traced, they also have this unique sense of having developed within their own island which has given them a unique outlook to the way they construct songs.
Perhaps here, however, is revealed to us one of the major weaknesses of the album. Since it experiments so wildly with its initial premises, it often feels structureless. “Unknown” for example, which follows “Skylines”, is a great track by itself but makes little sense at this point in the album. So too, much of the middle section, a part that ends up floundering in a mental wind, without any theme to tether itself to. This is a problem which The Treachery of Senses did not suffer from; that album was more direct, single minded in its progressive intentions, and thus easier to catalog and parse. Whether the overall approach on Origin is preferable to that of its predecessor is perhaps debatable, but some focus could have improved the album and leveraged its momentum better.
Whether this is a result of circumstance or simply an inevitable side effect of the variety which Oddland wanted to introduce to their sound, we’ll never quite know. However, in light of how engaging the end result is, we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume the latter. When you draw the line, the album contains plenty of hooks and engaging moments to keep you listening. Even though it loses a lot of its focus near the middle and around the end, when departing from the “stand out” tracks of the album, there are enough high points to serve as landmarks. It’s certainly a worthy addition to the Oddland sound, therefore explaining to their dedicated fans what they are about, exactly. This seems to be a successful mix between dark progressive metal and approaches more often found in “brighter” bands like Textures or Haken. For those who enjoy the tension stemming from those two focal points, there’s a lot to be found here that is moving. The “Nordic prog” scene is still growing, and it’s great that Oddland are pushing the boundaries in their own unique, twisted way.